Hawaiian Economics: From the Mountains to the Sea


This lesson printed from:

Posted October 28, 2003

Standards: 1, 2

Grades: 3-5

Author: Cross-Curricular Connections

Posted: October 28, 2003

Updated: November 14, 2014


Ancient Hawaii was ruled by chiefs, who were responsible for the well-being of their people and for managing the islands' resources. The chiefs divided the islands into land districts shaped like pie slices called Ahupua'a (ah-who- pu-ah-ah.) Each Ahupua'a covered the three main regions of the islands: the mountains, the valleys, and the shore. This system was designed to allow all Hawaiian communities equal access to the limited natural resources of the islands. Students will recognize that an island has limited natural resources, will understand that the Ahupua'a system was one method for allocating resources, and complete a Cost/Benefit Analysis of this method. Students will also come up with own method for distributing Hawaii's natural resources and compare it with the Ahupua'a method.  


Choice, Decision Making, Economic Systems, Natural Resources, Scarcity, Trade-off


  • Identify different methods used to allocate goods and services.
  • Define a cost as something you give up when you decide to do something.
  • Define a benefit as something you gain with you decide to do something.
  • Use a cost/benefit analysis to evaluate the ancient Hawaiian method of allocating goods.
  • Identify costs and benefits for various methods of distributing resources.


Tell the class that they are going to learn about an ancient economic system used in Hawaii a long time ago. Begin by showing the class a map of the state of Hawaii; point out where it is located in relation to the mainland U.S. Briefly discuss its remote location in the Pacific Ocean and its climate, in order to provide your students with some background for understanding the Hawaiilimited resources available in Hawaii. If any students have visited the islands, they can provide additional information to the class (e.g. about weather, climate, mountains, resources, etc.). Explain that Hawaii (ha-why-ee) or (ha-vie-ee) is made up of seven islands in the Pacific Ocean:

Ask the following questions:

  1. Have you ever been to an island?
  2. Have you ever been to an island in Hawaii?
  3. What are the natural resources?
  4. What was it like to live on an island before there were stores and factories to provide food and clothing?
  5. What was it like to live on an island before there were airplanes, cargo boats, and trucks to bring goods from far away and deliver them to the Hawaiian people?



[NOTE: The following section is a summary of what you will want to tell your students about Hawaii, its resources, and cost/benefit analysis. The same information appears on the student side of this lesson.]

From the Mountains to the Sea - Hawaii's Natural Resources
Hawaiians depended on the land and the ocean to provide them with food and shelter. Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii has many mountains and valleys as well as beaches. Long ago, Hawaiians used natural resources that came from each of these three regions: Mountains, valleys, and the shore.



  • rainforests
  • trees for canoe building
  • trees for house posts
  • wild banana trees
  • wild pigs
  • other natural resources




  • lush farmland
  • fresh water streams for drinking and watering crops
  • taro to make poi
  • sweet potato
  • bananas
  • ti leaf for wrapping food, making hula skirts, and more



Sea Shore

  • beaches
  • reefs
  • fishponds
  • gathering salt
  • shellfish, lobster, crab
  • gathering seaweed
  • shore fishing
  • deep ocean fishing.

Hawaiians needed resources from all three regions on the island.

Sharing Hawaii's Resources - The Hawaiian Ahupua'a (ah-who-pu-ah-ah)
How did the Hawaiians share these resources? [There were no stores and no restaurants. People needed to catch fish, grow vegetables, and build houses and canoes for themselves.]

How were these resources distributed? [A system was created so Hawaiians could all have places to catch and grow food and could find other natural resources. Ancient Hawaii was ruled by chiefs. Chiefs were responsible for the well-being of their people and for managing resources. In old Hawaii, the chiefs developed a system for dividing the islands into land districts called Ahupua'a.]

Imagine that an island is like a pie. The Ahupua'a is a slice of pie. The smallest, pointy part of the pie would be high in the mountains. The largest part of the pie would be the shore area. The sides of the wedge-shaped land were determined by natural boundaries such as cliffs or ridges. Just as Mom or Dad might cut a pie so everyone can have a piece with crust and fruit, the chiefs divided the land so that Hawaiians could find natural resources in the mountain, valley, and shore regions. The Ahupua'a districts contained all the natural resources that Hawaiians needed. Hawaiians could fish, farm, and gather forest resources in their Ahupua'a.

Click here to see how the Hawaiian island of O'ahu was divided into Ahupua'a.

Cost/Benefit Analysis - What Do You Think of the Ahupua's System
By dividing the land into these pie slices, the chiefs provided each community with access to a sample of all the resources in all the regions. This helped ensure that all the usable land would be used and areas would not be overcrowded. People would have access to the many resources found in Hawaii but would be limited to the resources found in the Ahupua'a. Hawaiians had to stay within their district to get these resources. They were not allowed to gather, farm, or fish in other Ahupua'a without special permission.

This system made sure all Hawaiians could use a beach, a valley, and a mountain range. This was a benefit to the Hawaiians as they needed to find resources in all these areas to live.

But in this system, Hawaiians could not choose where they wanted to fish, farm, or gather. Hawaiians were stuck using what they were given. This was a cost to the Hawaiian people.

Long ago, in old Hawaii, the Ahupua'a was one method used for getting Hawaii's resources to the people, but were the benefits worth the costs? Let's think about the Ahupua'a method.

  • How did the method help the people of Hawaii? These are benefits.
  • How did it help, or benefit, Hawaiians to have access to mountains, valleys, and shorelines?
  • How do you think it may have hurt Hawaiians to be limited to certain areas of the island?
  • What are some other costs of the Ahupua'a?

Click on the link below and let's think about the Ahupua'a method for sharing natural resources among Hawaiians. What are the costs & benefits of the Hawaiian people? Print up the Cost & Benefit Chart when you have finished. Ahupua 'a Costs & Benefits.

You Are A Hawaiian Chief
If you were a chief in Hawaii and you had to make sure that all of your people could find food and make shelter, what would you do? Read the questions below as you carefully think about the Ahupua'a method of land division and how Hawaiian's shared the natural resources found on their islands. With a partner go over the Ahupua'a Cost & Benefit sheet you just completed and answer the questions below. Can you think of any ideas to add to this chart? Brainstorm to come up with a different way to share the resources among the Hawaiian people. Write down your ideas on the back of your activity paper.

  1. List other Benefits of the Ahupua'a for the Hawaiian people.
  2. List other Costs of this system.
  3. Would you use the Ahupua'a system if you were the Chief? Why/why not?

 Extra Challenge: As Chief, how would you distribute the natural resources to your people? Write a few sentences explaining how you would share the resources and why you think it would work. 


Use the students' cost/benefit worksheets and their class participation to see if the students were able to examine one example of resource distribution to find costs and benefits of that system. Students should also be able to explain that the Hawaiian Ahupua'a system divided the land into pie slices, giving each community access to mountains, valleys, and beaches. They should be able to identify a few resources from each of these regions. They should understand that this is only one way to distribute natural resources and give a few costs and benefits associated with this system.


Class discussion- Have a copy of the Printed Cost & Benefit Sheet up on the board.

  • Get the students to discuss and share other costs & benefits not listed. (Possible cost answers: dry side of island grows less crops, storms could affect on side of island not others, fish, plants, sea life might thrive in certain areas better than others, people are limited to where they can go, limited freedom, etc. Possible benefit answers: easy to divide land, people won't over-fish one area because population is spread out over island, possibly better for environment, spreads out use of natural resources)
  • Discuss if students think they would like living in an Ahupua'a or not. What are their opinions of that method.
  • Share and discuss the students creative ideas to distribution natural resources in old Hawaii other than the Ahupua'a. For students really engaged in creating new systems, you can put the students in small groups to write what they think the costs & benefits of their new system would be.

Mahalo (thank you) for learning about ancient Hawaii and the Ahupua'a system.

Learn more about the history of Hawaii .

Learn about the Ethnobotany of Ahupua'a


Teachers can follow up this lesson with Hawaiian Economics: Barter for Fish & Poi.'